Hunts threaten to wipe out leopards

Hound hunting is the latest fad in South Africa, after it was banned in Zimbabwe

Fiona Macleod South African hunting out-fits are offering overseas clients the chance to hunt predators, especially highly endangered leopards, with dogs. Using hounds to hunt down leopards is becoming an increasingly popular marketing tool among local safari operators after it was banned in Zimbabwe last year. It had been gaining popularity among the Zimbabwean hunting fraternity until the National Council of SPCAs (NSPCA) and National Parks joined forces to have it outlawed. Now South African hunting outfits are enticing overseas clients to experience the “thrill of a lifetime” on hound hunts. They are the latest fad in the Eastern Cape and the Free State, where commercial farmers welcome the hunts to help them get rid of “problem” animals. Clients pay in the region of $75 000 for a hunting trip that includes a leopard trophy. The hunting outfits say it is a legal, sporting way to get rid of vermin. But animal welfare organisations have footage of leopards being torn into by dogs, as well as the dogs being ripped apart by their mortal enemies. Conservationists are worried hound hunting may wipe out the country’s leopards, already listed by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species as threatened with extinction. Because they are solitary, secretive cats which range over vast areas, figures about how many are left vary greatly. Despite the leopard’s endangered status, provincial conservation ordinances left over from the apartheid era make it perfectly legal for private landowners and their employees to hunt them with dogs. Leopards, along with smaller predators like jackals and caracals, are classified as vermin or “problem” animals. Farmers who are beginning to realise the commercial value of their “problem” predators call in the hunting outfits to provide the solution. Some provinces stipulate that a licence is needed to run a pack of dogs, but this regulation is seldom applied. Animal welfare organisations say this form of hunting is technically illegal under the Animal Protection Act, but it has never been put to the test. “The Act forbids inciting any animal to attack another animal. Strictly speaking, this could even include using dogs to sniff out or retrieve wild animals,” says Rick Allan, wildlife manager at the NSPCA. Poachers who have been caught hunting with dogs without the permission of a landowner are charged with illegal hunting, and their dogs are usually destroyed. When members of the Noordelikes Rugby Club caught Tshepo Matloga and two cousins hunting on a Northern Province farm last week, they allegedly murdered Matloga and shot five of his dogs. A workshop held by KwaZulu-Natal Wildlife last October was one of the first attempts to iron out the discrepancies in treatment between high-paying overseas hunters and “traditional” hunters, usually called poachers. Delegates appointed a “hunting with dogs committee” to seek broader representation of traditional hunting interests. Conservation officials say hunting with dogs is usually non-specific. Unless the dogs are well-controlled, they take out other protected species not targeted by the owners. The new-age hound hunters are using highly bred dogs imported from the United States, called blue-tick dogs or coon hounds, and claim they are well-trained. They resemble British foxhounds, but are bigger. “The main concern is that the leopard is not given a fair chance because the hounds chase it up a tree before the hunters shoot it,” says the Zimbabwe NSPCA’s Meryl Harrison. “Trophy hunting is supposed to be a sport. But where’s the sport in getting the dogs to do all the work?” After Eastern Cape-based safari operator Garry Miles started taking dogs into Matabeleland to hunt down leopards, Zimbabwe banned all hound hunting unless special permission is granted by the director of National Parks. Now another South African operator, Nico Lourens Safaris, is offering European clients hunts in the Eastern Free State. His advertisements boast that his outfit bagged eight leopards using hounds during the last hunting season. He also offers hunts of other cats like caracals. Free State chief conservation officer Louwrens Goosen says an investigation has been launched into the claims of Nico Lourens Safaris, “particularly if they are advertising to foreigners and are not able to deliver”. Several attempts to contact Nico Lourens Safaris were unsuccessful.

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